Election Was Barth’s Hook: Contra the Five Point Calvinists and the Absolutum Decretum

What initially attracted me to Karl Barth and Thomas Torrance? It really was a matter of theological utility, and need. I lived in a nut, and I needed it cracked; they cracked it for me with integrity and theological acumen. That was the hook for me. What am I referring to; what’s the nut? Election/Reprobation/Predestination. Some people simply want to ignore these words, and the concepts they symbolize, because they would claim they aren’t biblical words (but neither is the Trinity). So for those of us who don’t want to live with our heads in the theological sands we feel compelled to deal with the material language like election represent. For me, growing up as an evangelical, a Conservative Baptist to boot, my inculcation in this area was to live in a mode that some call: Calmanian. You see what’s being done there? The smooshing together of the words Calvinist and Arminian; this was the smooshy world I lived in all the way through seminary. I freely chose to reject the idea that God in Christ only died for a limited elect group of people (the “U” in the TULIP: ‘Unconditional Election’ and the “L” ‘Limited Atonement’); indeed, I have always found that idea reprehensible and at severe odds with who I’ve always understood God to be as Triune love. I could never stomach the idea, and still can’t, that God only ultimately loves certain people that He chooses to love based on an ad hoc choice that He makes for reasons known only to Him. I find this reprehensible because I don’t find it cohering with who God has revealed Himself to be in Jesus Christ; never have!

Barth, and Torrance following, offered a way out for me; but not in the negative way that might sound. In other words, what I found in them, with there intensive concentration on Jesus Christ, was a way to think about election-reprobation in and from what Hunsinger calls the ‘Chalcedonian Pattern’ (in reference to Barth’s theology). In the spirit of Athanasius, Barth and Torrance, both take the categories of election-reprobation and ground them principally in Jesus Christ; they see Him as both the electing God, and the elected human. In His free choice to be elected human, by virtue of His electing work, he assumes the reprobate status of what it means to be human (post-lapse). When we think about election-reprobation alongside Barth-Torrance we start thinking in terms of what has been called the mirifica commutatio (‘wonderful exchange’), or in the more Pauline terms of ‘by His poverty we’ve been made rich’ (cf. II Cor. 8.9). So the focus for Barth and Torrance is on a concrete humanity versus the abstract and individualistic conception of humanity we find in the so called absolutum decretum funding five point soteriology. In other words, for Barth and Torrance, Jesus is archetypal humanity, the ‘firstborn from the dead’ (cf. Col. 1.15-18), the ‘new creation’ (cf. II Cor. 5.17); by virtue of this status it is not possible to connive any other ontology or concept of humanity except by thinking that through the resurrected/recreated humanity of Jesus Christ. Interestingly, this isn’t just in Barth-Torrance, Calvin’s union with Christ (unio cum Christo) and double grace (duplex gratia) concepts are inchoate seeds that finally led to what Barth ultimately developed (see Pierre Maury’s influence on Barth’s aha moment in regard to his reformulation of election — Maury can be seen as a stepping stone between Calvin and Barth).

Some people are troubled by this schema for election-reprobation because of the theory of causation and the metaphysics they have imbibed (that produced the absolutum decretum), but that’s their problem. If people want to conflate a foreign ideological framework with kerygmatic reality, and then petitio principii (circular) argue that anyone who disagrees with them is disagreeing with the Gospel and its implications has deeper problems they ought to attend to; like an inability to critically engage with their own theological methodology. In other words, the Calvinist is very concerned, with reference to Barth’s reformulation, with how someone will finally come to the point that they need Jesus; i.e. given their totally depraved state. Given their options, in the metaphysics they live in, all they have available to them is a world that either emphasizes God’s choice, or the human choice. But that’s not the only alternative (in regard to thinking about causality); and Torrance’s work with Einstein’s theory of relativity and Maxwell’s field theory, helps to illustrate, by engagement with what Torrance calls ‘social-coefficients’ (what Barth might call ‘secular parables’ and some Patristics might call Logoi) how things are more dynamic in the warp and woof of the fabric of contingent/created reality vis-à-vis God.

Let me leave us with a good quote from Barth:

How can we have assurance in respect of our own election except by the Word of God? And how can even the Word of God give us assurance on this point if this Word, if this Jesus Christ, is not really the electing God, not the election itself, not our election, but only an elected means whereby the electing God—electing elsewhere and in some other way—executes that which he has decreed concerning those whom He has—elsewhere and in some other way—elected? The fact that Calvin in particular not only did not answer but did not even perceive this question is the decisive objection which we have to bring against his whole doctrine of predestination. The electing God of Calvin is a Deus nudus absconditus.[1]

I develop all of this further in my personal chapter for our last Evangelical Calvinism book; which you can read via google books here.

I don’t know if you hang around in Calvinist circles (like I do!), but it’s interesting, they hardly ever talk about this doctrine. There is good reason why! Roger Olson, the evangelical Arminian, often refers to the Calvinist God as a monster, precisely because of their doctrine of election-reprobation. But Olson, ironically, works in and from the same theological material, and the same basic metaphysic that the Calvinists do; he doesn’t offer a viable alternative.

[1] Karl Barth, CD II/2, 111.

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Gannon Murphy On: To truly know God is to love him. Religion and Piety As a Frame for Knowing God

By now you know that our second Evangelical Calvinism book was just released, the full title being: Evangelical Calvinism: Volume 2: Dogmatics&Devotion. But as you also know Myk and I had a volume 1 Evangelical Calvinism book published under the title: Evangelical Calvinism: Essays Resourcing the Continuing Reformation of the Church (which this subtitle is also attached to our second volume as well). This post will be referencing one of the chapters found in EC1; a chapter written by Gannon Murphy on knowledge of God in John Calvin’s thought.

What I want to focus on, in regard to Gannon’s chapter is his brief but profound development of how the Latin terms religio and pietas function in Calvin’s theological offering when it comes to knowledge of God. As Murphy points out Calvin’s conception of knowledge of God was never a disembodied one; in fact it was more existential. It was never really a philosophical or abstract engagement with some sort of abstract brute conception of a substance that we could correlate through abstract reasoning to the God disclosed in Holy Scripture and Jesus Christ. No, as Murphy argues, for Calvin, knowledge of God was something more akin to knowledge in God; more particularly in Christ. Gannon up-points how the concepts of religio and pietas functioned in this type of dialogical/existential mode for the Christian knower coram Deo (‘before God’). Gannon writes (at length):

Religio and Pietas

The very beginning of the Institutes commences in a statement concerning that which constitutes true wisdom, to wit, that wisdom “consists almost entirely of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves.” Some theologians have argued that this first statement is actually the entire point of the Institutes, a contestable, but not entirely meritless, claim.

It is perhaps customary in our technological age to think of knowledge as a purely apprehensive or propositional enterprise—we have knowledge of this object, or that thing, or such-and-such a set of data. The key to preserving Calvin’s doctrine of knowledge (cognitione), however, is to see it as something much fuller and more “holistic.” In sum, to truly know God is to love him. Theological knowledge is not merely propositional in nature or a matter of mere intellectual assent (assensus). Rather, it must also be experiential, stemming from love that also manifests itself in adoration, trust, fear, and obedience to God. Edward Dowey, for example, refers to Calvin’s concept of knowledge, as “existential knowledge.” The idea of coming to God merely in mind is an utterly foreign concept throughout the Calvinian corpus. Further, Calvin (like Luther) alludes to the nonsensical nature of conceiving of God as a mere object of knowledge.

Calvin uses the terms religio and pietas which, unfortunately, do not translate well into our English words, religion and piety, both of which tend to connote merely a system of ecclesiology or perfunctory, external religious observance. Both words in the Latin, however, denote something much deeper. Re-ligio derives from re, “again” and ligere, “to literally means “careful,” the opposite of negligens. Religio, then, means something more along the lines of “careful attention to” and to be “rebound.” Pietas, while often suggesting merely “dutifulness,” is better understood as “dutiful kindness,” stemming from the Latin root pius (literally, “kind”). Thus, pietas is friendly obedience toward the things of God. It is the perfect opposite of animosity toward godly things—to find oneself welcoming of, and delighting in, his or her Creator.

Calvin, characteristically never wanting to be misunderstood but always desiring clarity for his readers, defines religio as, “confidence in God coupled with serious fear—fear, which both includes in it willing reverence, and brings along with it such legitimate worship as is prescribed by the law.” On the other hand, pietas is “that union of reverence and love to God which the knowledge of his benefits inspires.” Expounded here is something rather far removed from trajectories that find natural theology as their starting point—the idea of an irrefragable knowledge of God garnered apart from reverence and revelation, that is, a special and specific Word from God. Rather, Calvin speaks of the first step of pietas being, “to acknowledge that God is a Father, to defend, govern, and cherish us, until he brings us to the eternal inheritance of his kingdom.”

That true knowledge of God cannot be torn asunder from pietas and religio means, then, that overly-philosophical speculation about the essence or substance of God is necessarily ruled out. Calvin derides such pursuits as “Epicurean,” as “frigid speculations,” and admonishes us rather to seek out “what things are agreeable to his nature.”[1]

Personally this resonates with me deeply; which is why Murphy’s chapter is so apropos in a book with the title Evangelical Calvinism. It is this embodied way of knowing God, by loving God that represents the proper kind of ‘pure religion’ and piety that Jesus himself claims sums up all of the Law and Prophets:

36 “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” 37 And He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the great and foremost commandment. 39 The second is like it, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets.”[2]

What this Calvinian mode towards knowledge of God kicks against, ironically, is any approach that would attempt to know God through discursive reasoning, or philosophical abstraction. What Calvin’s approach admonishes us to is to approach God through God in Christ en concreto (specific); through the realization that genuine knowledge of God is never an abstract academic endeavor, it always entails the particular and scandalous approach to God that only comes through the Lamb slain before the foundations of the world. In other words, genuine religion and piety,  relative to the Christian, involves a committed and lively relationship with God; but one that is not initiated by humans in abstraction, instead one that is unilaterally provided for by the initiation and election of God in Christ. Some might consider this relational way for conceiving of knowledge of God as foolish and weak; but so goes the way of the Gospel.

What this all avoids is presenting a knowledge of God that is rooted, again, in philosophical speculation and even what counts today, most, as what it means to do good Christian evangelical theology. What we want to avoid, which Dag Hammarskjöld so eloquently describes is a presentation of a knowledge of the faith that in the end is perceptibly empty by the discerning and reflective human Christian or even non-Christian would-be knower. Note Hammarskjöld: “‘How many have been driven into outer darkness by empty talk about faith as something to be rationally comprehended, something “true”’.[3] If we follow Calvin’s lead, according to Gannon, we won’t be ‘driven into outer darkness’ when coming to know God in Christ; instead because of union and participation in and from life in Christ we will be “irresistibly” drawn deeper and deeper into the winsome and ineffable inner life of God, in Christ, wherein an effervescent and luminous knowledge of God’s life, by experience (properly understood), will be ever increasing and ever inviting.

Leaving on a Personal Note

I honestly do not think this is the approach people in the 21st century evangelical church, particularly in North America and the West, are being provided with. Instead, contra Calvin, what folks are being fed is a pablum of religio and pietas that come in that name only. In other words, people are being encouraged, if they want to press deep into God, to engage with God from a philosophical and ‘natural’ approach to him. What makes this hard for folks to discern is that so much of what they are being fed has been conflated and couched in a Christian (i.e. Reformed) heritage that has this type of heart-warmed-over affectionate “piety” associated with it; but when that person digs deeper into the intellectual framework that is funding this “piety” what in fact they will find is a highly philosophical apparatus for knowing God that has more to do with the classical Philosophers of ancient Greece than it does with God’s Self-revelation in Jesus Christ.

It seriously agitates me that this is what counts as engaging with God for the evangelical Christian today. I blame institutions such as The Gospel Coalition, Together 4 the Gospel, and other associations of evangelicals for much of this; i.e. at least as this is making its way into the broader community of evangelical Christians in North America. We need to return to the sources, ad fontes, truly; but may that be understood to be genuinely rooted in God’s Self-revelation in Jesus Christ alone. May that be understood to be grounded in an actual framework that genuinely is relational and personal, and works from the “foundation” that the Triune God is indeed ‘the ground and grammar’ of all things; particularly and mostly of knowledge of Godself.

*repost

[1] Gannon Murphy, Pietas, Religio, and the God Who Is, in Myk Habets and Bobby Grow eds., Evangelical Calvinism: Essays Resourcing the Continuing Reformation of the Church (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications an Imprint of Wipf&Stock Publishers, 2012), 159-60.

[2] NASB.

[3] See Jason Goroncy’s post, On Empty Talk About Faith, accessed 05-16-2017.

How John Calvin Found Comfort in Regard to His Physical Frailty and Sicknesses: And Application of that to My Cancer Diagnosis and Human Suffering in General

Sickness, disease, suffering, death, and evil, among other such trifles, are all things that Christians have a capacity to face, before and because of God, with an utter sense of hope and sober trust. Often evil, and all of its attendant realities (including human suffering!), is used as a scalpel to cut God to pieces; leaving him as nothing more than a corpse that the modern person can look at with kind of perverted joy, and yet somber realization that all they are left with is themselves (they’d have it no other way).

John Calvin, pre-modern as he was, was no stranger to human suffering, sickness, and disease. Indeed, as W. Allen Hogge, M.D. and Charles Partee detail in their contribution to our Evangelical Calvinism: Volume 2 book, through their chapter entitled Calvin’s Awful Health and God’s Awesome Providence, we come to see, with some precision, the scope of suffering that Calvin endured; particularly with regard to his physical health. We see how Calvin dealt with his fragile constitution, coram Deo, by intertwining his theological framework with his interpretation of his own predicament as a broken and ill person. We see how Calvin’s doctrine[s] of predestination, election, Divine Providence, so on and so forth informed the way he attempted to deal with the ostensible problem of suffering, disease, and the brokenness with which he was so familiar.

In an attempt to provide some good context on how Calvin dealt with all of this theologically, I thought I would appeal (at some extensive length) to Hogge’s and Partee’s writing on the matter; and then offer some reflections of my own in light of Calvin’s approach to suffering. I thought I would tie my own experiences of dealing with severe depression, anxiety, doubt of God, and diagnosis of a terminal and incurable cancer into Calvin’s own approach when it comes to God’s Providence and care in these instances. So at length here is a section from Hogge’s and Partee’s chapter (I’m thinking this is actually a section that Partee wrote):

An Alternative Conclusion

Granted the erstwhile power of Calvin’s exposition of God’s almighty providence, this once shining heirloom is tarnished for many in recent generations. If God is the author of everything and evil is clearly something, then simple logic seems to dictate the conclusion that God is responsible for evil. In other words in the light of his strong affirmation of God’s providence, Calvin’s equally strong denial that God is the author of evil is not as convincing as once it was. Obviously, the sweeping philosophical conundrum of the origin and existence of evil (of which physical illness is a painfully personal example) has exercised serious reflection from the beginning with no satisfactory end in sight. Therefore, if a completely satisfactory resolution is unlikely, at least Calvin’s conclusion can be gently modified by his own suggestion.

Among the alternative possibilities for resolution, Calvin did not for a moment consider that God might be limited in nature (as in process theology) or self-limited by choice (as in Emil Brunner)83 or that God’s interest in “soul-making” requires the existence of evil.84 The regnancy of God is unquestioned. Calvin believed all things are governed by God including human free will. We are to understand “that on both sides the will is in God’s power, either to bend the hearts of men to humanity, or to harden those which were naturally tender.”85 In a bold metaphor Calvin even claims that God fights against us with his left hand and for us with his right hand.86 In both events we are in God’s hands.

Two modern, major, and massive theological acquisitions have provoked a climate change of opinion that Calvin could not have anticipated and which require integration into the family heritage. First, a particularly contentious debate over Calvin’s doctrine of Scripture continues to roil his descendants. There is, of course, no gainsaying that Calvin did not feel the impact of the Critical Historical Method, and, while his response to this development cannot be predicted, its adoption by most mainstream biblical scholars today means that the distinction between human and divine in Scripture is less adamantine than Calvin thought. Thus, a biblical citation no longer closes a discussion but opens it to furtherdevelopment.87

The second wider and deeper change concerns the role of reason. The dream of reason in Western intellectual culture stretched from Plato to Spinoza, but the famous wake-up call which sounded from David Hume alarming Immanuel Kant and rousing him from his dogmatic slumbers, leads to the claim that “The Copernican revolution brought about by Kant was the most important single turning point in the history of philosophy.”88 If so, it is now impossible for Western theologians to ignore Kant’s strictures on pure reason to make room for deep faith. Additionally, the necessity and universality of reason has been challenged by anthropological studies of differing cultures and gender studies within the same culture. Moreover, the developing scientific study of the human and animal brain modifies the confidence of Hamlet’s appeal to “godlike reason” (Hamlet IV.4.38).

Calvin’s epistemological reliance on Scripture and reason is an immense and complicated subject on its own.89 He believed the Bible was the divine Word of God but he also noted its human elements. Likewise, Calvin both praised and blamed reason. “Reason is proper to our nature; it distinguishes us from brute beasts.”90 At the same time, because of sin human reason is not able to understand God nor God’s relation to humanity. 91 Therefore, “Christian philosophy bids reason give way to, submit, and subject itself to, the Holy Spirit.”92 Still at the end of the day, although Calvin rejects “speculation,”93 he thinks there must be a reason for the existence of illnesses, even if we do not know exactly what it is. Among his explanations, Calvin offers the punishment of human sin, God’s hidden will, the malignancy of Satan and the demons, and the evil will of other human beings. According to Calvin, the proper human response to this situation is faith, humility, patience, and so on. Nevertheless, the variety of these explanations does not challenge Calvin’s basic confidence that the divine intellect has its reasons even though they are hidden from us.

An alternative category of “mysteries beyond reason” is sometimes employed by Calvin and should be noted. That is, Calvin affirms many divine things that humans do not, and cannot, know. For example, he admits the existence of sin as “adventitious”94 meaning it has no rational explanation. Calvin did not, but he might have, applied this category to disease suggesting that while medicine seeks to describe “what” and “how,” theology cannot explain its “why.” This situation has some affinity with Kant’s distinction between the phenomenal and noumenal realm leading to the concept of “antinomy”—a category impervious to pure, but not to practical, reason. If then we humans can recognize and treat the penultimate and medical causes of disease, we might admit that we do not understand the “reason” for illness and are not obligated to insist ultimately and theologically that there is one. One might leave the painful puzzle to reason and the trustful victory to faith.

Many contemporary students of Calvin’s theology, both clerical and medical, cannot with best mind and good conscience adopt the obvious conclusion that Calvin draws concerning the existence and meaning of disease. Still, seeking a life of faith, hope, and love, one can appreciate Calvin’s passionate conviction that in neither prosperity nor adversity are we separated from the love of God. Therefore, leaving the study of “material,” “efficient,” and “formal” causes to the scientific community, theologians might come full stop before the “final” causes of illness. Affirming in faith with Calvin God’s good creation and encompassing providence, the impenetrable mystery of assigning a “final cause” for disease might be approached with the modesty and humility which Calvin sometimes evinces.

Following this interlude of thundering silence, theology could resume with the glorious theme of hope in life everlasting and abundant where, delivered from pain and death, all tears are dried, all sorrows past, the lame walk, the deaf hear, the blind see, lepers are cleansed—the dead being raised up made alive in Christ.[1]

Following Hogge’s and Partee’s treatment of Calvin, we can see that Calvin himself, because of his historical location, would defy the modern attempt to peer into the ‘abyss’ of God’s secret council when it comes to trying to understand the ‘cause’ of evil, sickness, and disease. But precisely because of Calvin’s location, theologically, he will consistently defer to God’s sovereign hand of providence in the affairs of this world order, and all of us ensconced within it. So while he will not attempt to speculate or press in the type of rationalist ways that moderns might want to; at the same time he rests and trusts in the reality that God is providentially in control of sickness and disease. He doesn’t have the type of scientific acumen that moderns have ostensibly developed, but he rests in the always abiding reality of God’s almighty ability to succor the needs of all of us frail and indolent humans as we inhabit a world of contingencies and ailments not of our own making, per se.

As modern and now “post-modern” people we want more scientifically derived answers than Calvin can offer us. When we get sick, when we suffer immeasurable diseases and anxieties in our apparently cold and chaotic world, we look to the lab-coats to offer us a cure-for-what-ails-us. But for anyone, particularly those of us, who like Calvin, abide in a deep union with God in Jesus Christ, we will most consistently end up right where pre-modern Calvin always ended up; we will repose in God’s faithful care to never leave us or forsake us; we will rest in the reality that God is both sovereign, and that he providentially walks with us through the valley of the shadow of death, even more than we realize.

When I was diagnosed with desmoplastic small round cell tumor sarcoma (DSRCT), an incurable and terminal cancer for which there is no known treatment, I ended up right where Calvin ended up; I had to simply rest and trust in God’s providential and loving care. I did due diligence, in regard to pursuing all known treatment avenues, both traditionally and alternatively, but at the end of the day, and in every instance, I had to rest in the reality that God was in control. Like Calvin, as Hogge and Partee highlight, I had to find assurance and hope in the fact that the God who I couldn’t control was in control, indeed, of my every waning anxiety and fear; that he was in control of the chaos (the cancer) inside of my body that wanted to consume me like a voracious monster. I did find rest and hope in God’s providential care; not in the abstract, but as God broke into my life moment by moment, every moment of everyday during that season.

While sickness, disease, suffering, evil, and the like might not have an easy answer—as far as causation—what we can rest in, like Calvin did, is the fact that we know the One who is in control; who is in control of what might even look like absolute chaos and destruction upon us. We can rest in the fact that, in Christ, we are in union with an indestructible life that death couldn’t even hold down. This is my comfort in life, even now. I rest in the fact that God in Christ gives me every breath that I breathe, literally; the same breath that the risen Son of God rose with on that Easter morning.

[1] W. Allen Hogge, M.D. and Charles Partee, “Calvin’s Awful Health and God’s Awesome Providence,” in Myk Habets and Bobby Grow, eds., Evangelical Calvinism: Volume 2: Dogmatics&Devotion (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications an Imprint of Wipf&Stock Publishers, 2017), 285-88.

*Repost.

Grace is Not a Phase: Knowledge of God as the Basis for Knowledge of the Justified Self

I have often thought this, and maybe you have too. John Calvin identifies, famously, in his Institute, this, in regard to knowledge of God and knowledge of self, in light of knowledge of God:

Without knowledge of self there is no knowledge of God

Our wisdom, in so far as it ought to be deemed true and solid Wisdom, consists almost entirely of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves. But as these are connected together by many ties, it is not easy to determine which of the two precedes and gives birth to the other. For, in the first place, no man can survey himself without forthwith turning his thoughts towards the God in whom he lives and moves; because it is perfectly obvious, that the endowments which we possess cannot possibly be from ourselves; nay, that our very being is nothing else than subsistence in God alone. In the second place, those blessings which unceasingly distil to us from heaven, are like streams conducting us to the fountain. Here, again, the infinitude of good which resides in God becomes more apparent from our poverty. In particular, the miserable ruin into which the revolt of the first man has plunged us, compels us to turn our eyes upwards; not only that while hungry and famishing we may thence ask what we want, but being aroused by fear may learn humility. For as there exists in man something like a world of misery, and ever since we were stript of the divine attire our naked shame discloses an immense series of disgraceful properties every man, being stung by the consciousness of his own unhappiness, in this way necessarily obtains at least some knowledge of God. Thus, our feeling of ignorance, vanity, want, weakness, in short, depravity and corruption, reminds us, (see Calvin on John 4: 10,) that in the Lord, and none but He, dwell the true light of wisdom, solid virtue, exuberant goodness. We are accordingly urged by our own evil things to consider the good things of God; and, indeed, we cannot aspire to Him in earnest until we have begun to be displeased with ourselves. For what man is not disposed to rest in himself? Who, in fact, does not thus rest, so long as he is unknown to himself; that is, so long as he is contented with his own endowments, and unconscious or unmindful of his misery? Every person, therefore, on coming to the knowledge of himself, is not only urged to seek God, but is also led as by the hand to find him.

Without knowledge of God there is no knowledge of self

On the other hand, it is evident that man never attains to a true self-knowledge until he have previously contemplated the face of God, and come down after such contemplation to look into himself. For (such is our innate pride) we always seem to ourselves just, and upright, and wise, and holy, until we are convinced, by clear evidence, of our injustice, vileness, folly, and impurity. Convinced, however, we are not, if we look to ourselves only, and not to the Lord also – He being the only standard by the application of which this conviction can be produced. For, since we are all naturally prone to hypocrisy, any empty semblance of righteousness is quite enough to satisfy us instead of righteousness itself. And since nothing appears within us or around us that is not tainted with very great impurity, so long as we keep our mind within the confines of human pollution, anything which is in some small degree less defiled delights us as if it were most pure just as an eye, to which nothing but black had been previously presented, deems an object of a whitish, or even of a brownish hue, to be perfectly white. Nay, the bodily sense may furnish a still stronger illustration of the extent to which we are deluded in estimating the powers of the mind. If, at mid-day, we either look down to the ground, or on the surrounding objects which lie open to our view, we think ourselves endued with a very strong and piercing eyesight; but when we look up to the sun, and gaze at it unveiled, the sight which did excellently well for the earth is instantly so dazzled and confounded by the refulgence, as to oblige us to confess that our acuteness in discerning terrestrial objects is mere dimness when applied to the sun. Thus too, it happens in estimating our spiritual qualities. So long as we do not look beyond the earth, we are quite pleased with our own righteousness, wisdom, and virtue; we address ourselves in the most flattering terms, and seem only less than demigods. But should we once begin to raise our thoughts to God, and reflect what kind of Being he is, and how absolute the perfection of that righteousness, and wisdom, and virtue, to which, as a standard, we are bound to be conformed, what formerly delighted us by its false show of righteousness will become polluted with the greatest iniquity; what strangely imposed upon us under the name of wisdom will disgust by its extreme folly; and what presented the appearance of virtuous energy will be condemned as the most miserable impotence. So far are those qualities in us, which seem most perfect, from corresponding to the divine purity.[1]

These are such important and profound thoughts; and ones that have relevance for us currently. I am just finishing up Cornelius van der Kooi and Gijsbert van den Brink’s Christian Dogmatics (approx. 800 pp.). In their section on justification/salvation, and in particular, in their constructive proposal, in their sub-section on participation, they imbibe some of the aspects noted by Calvin, in regard to knowledge of God, and apply them to what it means to be ‘sanctified’ or ‘transformed’ (a term they prefer to sanctification) before the living God. What they highlight is something that I have come to realize over time in my walk with Jesus Christ as well. While genuine transformation can and does take place (mortificatio/vivificatio), there is also the further realization that we never arrive; and thus, I’d inject, why the Apostle Paul in Romans 6—8 uses the language of continuously ‘reckoning ourselves dead to sin.’ The whole point of our ‘old man’ or the ‘flesh’ needing to be put to death is that therein nothing good dwells, and never will. The reality is that we continue to live in these fallen bodies with all of its old wretched desires, and so we needs be reckon ourselves dead to sin and alive to the living Christ. It is within this tenor that Kooi and Brink write:

Thus we can understand why Christian dogmatics often has little enthusiasm about trying to describe our progress in becoming transformed into the image of Christ. All our “glittering images” (à la Susan Howatch) can easily blow up in our faces. We must indeed be very circumspect in translating this transformation directly into moral categories. For instance, it is wrong to suppose that believers gradually acquire a nobler character so as to need less and less forgiveness, justification, and communion with Christ. For the transformation they experience is primarily a matter of growing “in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 3:18). His grace will never be a phase that we have left behind but will remain the source to which we constantly return and draw upon ever more purposefully. For growing in Christ also implies at least some increase in self-knowledge. When we become aware that we see but little improvement in the passions and imaginations at the bottom of our heart, that nasty tendencies such as jealousy, hedonism, and superficiality seem to be more resilient than we thought, we can become more modest and realistic. If we acknowledge these things in ourselves rather than denying them, we will more consciously deal with them—for instance, by making a greater effort, based on our participation in Christ, to focus on what pleases God and is good for others. This pattern is what the gospel refers to as denying oneself; not disparaging feelings of always having to be submissive to others, but the conscious choice, at different moments in life, to go the way of Christ and to be there for others (Matt 16:24 and pars.).[2]

Walking with Christ can be a discouraging thing; particularly when false expectations are injected into a young believer’s life early on. It is important to realize, I think, what Kooi and Brink alert us to; i.e. that we will never arrive until beatific vision happens, and thus we are at the constant behest of God. I do believe there can certainly be maturation or ‘transformation’ (cf. II Cor. 3.18) in the believer’s life; and that there indeed should be over a life lived. But the reality will always remain, and this is indeed sobering, that the impulses and orientations for the various expressions of sin that we are disposed to personally will always lay just below the surface; albeit in the grave of Jesus Christ. We clearly have been freed from the power of sin in our lives, but with the sober realization that that aspect of our old self hasn’t been repaired, but instead put to death; and so we must continuously reckon that to be so as we participate in the death and life of Jesus Christ by his resurrection power applied to our lives moment by moment afresh and anew by the Holy Spirit. This walk is a daily exercise; a battle even.

[1] John Calvin, Institute.

[2] Cornelius van der Kooi and Gijsbert van den Brink, Christian Dogmatics: An Introduction (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2017), 690.

Responding to a Sleight in Michael Allen’s Book, Sanctification: The Torrances and Charles Partee as Calvin Scrubs

I am continuing to read Michael Allen’s new book, Sanctification. I am going to register a little gripe in regard to what might seem nit-picky, but it bothered me; it’s a rather nerdy-editorial observation, but it says something to me—and I think that’s an intentional move by Allen. Here he is discussing John Calvin’s double grace (duplex gratia), and how Calvin fits in with other theological standouts of his time, following his time, and the post reformed orthodox theology that developed later in the 16th and 17th centuries respectively. Before we hear from Allen, in case you’re unaware, there has been no small debate about Calvin and the Calvinists, and their relationship (or not). Richard Muller has spent substantial amounts of time arguing that there is material theological continuity between Calvin’s inchoate theology (relative to what would be developed later), then, and what post reformed orthodoxy (or “Calvinism”) developed later. You can see Allen’s tip of the hat to the Mullerian argument here, and how he wants to make it appear that the opponents of Muller et al. are less than directed by primary texts in their own engagement with Calvin (which they argue that there is discontinuity between Calvin and the Calvinists). Allen writes:

There have been historiographic debates as of late regarding the way that Calvin’s theology of union with Christ is or is not similar to Luther’s, Melanchthon’s, and the Lutheran confessions’, and whether it is or is not consistently developed by later reformed theologians, such as those federal divines who prepared the Westminster Standards in the seventeenth century. Mark Garcia and others in the so-called “Gaffin School” have argued that Calvin and the Lutheran tradition offer markedly different approaches to union with Christ, and that Calvin in no way identifies justification as a cause for sanctification. James Torrance, Thomas Torrance, and Charles Partee, among others, argue that Calvin was not faithfully followed by later Calvinists, who failed to maintain his focus on union with Christ. And yet, leading scholars of Reformation and post-Reformation theology on just these doctrines—in particular, J. Todd Billings, J.V. Fesko, and Richard A. Muller—have argued at length from primary sources that both dichotomies are false. Calvin stood alongside Lutherans (like Melanchthon, in particular) in affirming the priority of justification as well as the necessity of sanctification; and Calvin’s insistence on union with Christ as the context for the double grace was developed in a faithful or continuous way by later federal theologians (and in the Westminster Standards). We do well, mindful of those debates, to look at the wider theological context of Calvin’s theology.[1]

Not so fast. Do you notice what Michael does? He stacks the deck in his favor, and sleights his opponents. In other words, as he mentions the Torrances, Partee, and some amorphous others (whoever they might be), he doesn’t actually provide any sort of bibliographic information on them; you know, so we all could go and see if this is so (what he asserts about them). He also contrasts them with his scholars who “have argued at length from primary sources,” making it appear that Partee, the Torrances, et al. are not “leading scholars” themselves. Let’s just focus on Charles Partee by himself; Partee is a true blue Calvin scholar who has written treatises on the theology of John Calvin—in other words, he is just as much a Calvin scholar as the folks that Allen appeals to (and a senior one to boot!).

As a reader, a critical one, this does not play well with me; it is far from being persuasive, for example, and makes it appear that Allen is simply appealing to the people (his). Whether or not what he is arguing, or signaling, is the case or not (in regard to Calvin and the Calvinists) is beside the point. To me it represents poor form to not give us some bibliographic information for the Torrances and Partee, while at the same time providing biblio for his privileged sources. Here’s the bibliographic information he gives us via a footnote after he brings up Billings, Fesko, and Muller:

See esp. J. Todd Billings, “The Contemporary Reception of Luther and Calvin’s Doctrine of Union with Christ: Mapping a Biblical, Catholic, and Reformational Motif,” in Calvin and Luther: The Continuing Relationship, ed. R. Ward Holder (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2013), 158–75; as well has his larger study, Calvin, Participation, and the Gift: The Activity of Believers in Union with Christ (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007); Richard A. Muller, Calvin and the Reformed Tradition: On the Work of Christ and the Order of Salvation (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2012); and J.V. Fesko, Beyond Calvin: Union with Christ and Justification in Early Modern Reformed Theology (1517–1700) (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2012).[2]

And yet we don’t have a corresponding footnote for material from the Torrances, Partee, or the others that Allen refers us to. The net effect is to make the Torrances, Partee, et al. look like mere scrubs compared to the venerable sources Allen elevates as the “leading scholars.” This is at best an oversight, but since I don’t think Allen would make such an oversight, I’d have to say it’s an intentional sleight towards the Torrances, Partee, et al. All I can say is: What the?!

There is obviously some intramural banter taking place here, and Allen lets us know exactly where he lines up. It’s not surprising at this point, he’s already taken other swipes at the Torrances, The Evangelical Calvinists (like our book[s]), et al. But his form here is poor, I think. At least let people know what Partee, the Torrances, et al. have produced in their own right in regard to the scholarship in this area; and don’t make it appear that, again, they are just the scrubs who really don’t know what they’re talking about (i.e. avoid genetic fallacies, poisoning the well, and other types of fallacies).

[1] Michael Allen, Sanctification (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2017), 174.

[2] Ibid., 174-5 n16.

90 Posts on John Calvin in Remembrance of the 500 Year Anniversary of the Protestant Reformation

Since the 500 year anniversary of the Protestant Reformation is upon us this October 31st, the day that Martin Luther nailed his infamous indulgence theses to the Wittenberg door in Germany on 1517, I thought I would point you to the blog writing I’ve done on my favorite second generation reformer, John Calvin. My last post pointed you to the man himself, Martin Luther; this post introduces you to the 90 posts I’ve written on John Calvin. For Protestant Christians, even for Anabaptists at some level, we’d have to say that at least Luther, if not Calvin, represent kind of church fathers for us; insofar as they started the ball rolling towards the theologies that have developed since October 31st, 1517. I know many Anabaptists would be repulsed by the suggestion that they have any association at all with Calvin or Luther, particularly Calvin, given his overt and explicit dislike of the Anabaptists. But again, in a seminal type of way I think it would be hard pressed to disavow the idea that even the Radical Reformation would ever had taken place without people like Luther and Calvin; in that sense there is, even if it’s a discordant one, a relationship between the magisterial reformers and the radical reformers. But I digress, here are my posts on John Calvin (and yes, some of them are duplicates of each other): Click Here

Getting Past the Caricatures of Calvin: Calvin the ‘in Christ’ Participatory Theologian

John Calvin often gets caricatured for a variety of reasons; the unfortunate thing about such caricatures is they keep people from benefiting from some very rich theology that he offers in the whole of his oeuvre. What I appreciate most about Calvin’s theology is both his union with Christ (unio cum Christo) and double grace (duplex gratia) motifs. Both emphasize in very Pauline and Christologically rich ways what a good participationist soteriology should look like, and yet most miss this because they get hung up on his thinking in regard to God’s decretive activities, and his doctrine of double predestination (both things I recently critiqued him on through Barth and Torrance in my personal chapter in our EC2 book). But note the following; here in a pretty famous passage from Calvin’s Institutes we see just this kind of participationist emphasis that we might even mistake for some patristic theologian’s offering. Calvin writes:

We must now examine this question. How do we receive those benefits which the Father bestowed on his only-begotten Son—not for Christ’s own private use, but that he might enrich poor and needy men? First, we must understand that as long as Christ remains outside of us, and we are separated from him, all that he has suffered and done for the salvation of the human race remains useless and of no value for us. Therefore, to share with us what he has received from the Father, he had to become ours and to dwell within us. For this reason, he is called “our Head” [Eph. 4:15], and “the first-born among many brethren” [Rom. 8:29]. We also, in turn, are said to be “engrafted into him” [Rom. 11:17], and to “put on Christ” [Gal. 3:37]; for, as I have said, all that he possesses is nothing to us until we grow into one body with him. It is true that we obtain this by faith. Yet since we see that not all indiscriminately embrace that communion with Christ which is offered through the gospel, reason itself teaches us to climb higher and to examine into the secret energy of the Spirit, by which we come to enjoy Christ and all his benefits.[1]

Do you see what I mean? For Calvin, the whole of salvation is accomplished in the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ (we might even mistake this for Barth or Torrance — but they receive such emphases from Calvin, actually). For Calvin, Justification/Sanctification and ultimately Glorification are all resplendent and present in Jesus Christ; our only hope is to be united to him by the Spirit in the bond of faith.

But if you follow all the caricatures of Calvin’s theology you’ll naively end up thinking that he was the foment of some of the most hideous monstrous theology on planet earth. As the passage above should illustrate you and your caricature would be severely out of place.

Note: I am taking a break from Facebook. This post will automatically feed through to Facebook, so anyone reading this from there, if you’d like to interact, then leave a comment in the thread of this post here at the blog.

[1] Calvin, Institutes 3.1.1.

How John Calvin Found Comfort in Regard to His Physical Frailty and Sicknesses: And Application of that to My Cancer Diagnosis and Human Suffering in General

Sickness, disease, suffering, death, and evil, among other such trifles, are all things that Christians have a capacity to face, before and because of God, with an utter sense of hope and sober trust. Often evil, and all of its attendant realities (including human suffering!), is used as a scalpel to cut God to pieces; leaving him as nothing more than a corpse that the modern person can look at with kind of perverted joy, and yet somber realization that all they are left with is themselves (they’d have it no other way).

John Calvin, pre-modern as he was, was no stranger to human suffering, sickness, and disease. Indeed, as W. Allen Hogge, M.D. and Charles Partee detail in their contribution to our Evangelical Calvinism: Volume 2 book, through their chapter entitled Calvin’s Awful Health and God’s Awesome Providence, we come to see, with some precision, the scope of suffering that Calvin endured; particularly with regard to his physical health. We see how Calvin dealt with his fragile constitution, coram Deo, by intertwining his theological framework with his interpretation of his own predicament as a broken and ill person. We see how Calvin’s doctrine[s] of predestination, election, Divine Providence, so on and so forth informed the way he attempted to deal with the ostensible problem of suffering, disease, and the brokenness with which he was so familiar.

In an attempt to provide some good context on how Calvin dealt with all of this theologically, I thought I would appeal (at some extensive length) to Hogge’s and Partee’s writing on the matter; and then offer some reflections of my own in light of Calvin’s approach to suffering. I thought I would tie my own experiences of dealing with severe depression, anxiety, doubt of God, and diagnosis of a terminal and incurable cancer into Calvin’s own approach when it comes to God’s Providence and care in these instances. So at length here is a section from Hogge’s and Partee’s chapter (I’m thinking this is actually a section that Partee wrote):

An Alternative Conclusion

Granted the erstwhile power of Calvin’s exposition of God’s almighty providence, this once shining heirloom is tarnished for many in recent generations. If God is the author of everything and evil is clearly something, then simple logic seems to dictate the conclusion that God is responsible for evil. In other words in the light of his strong affirmation of God’s providence, Calvin’s equally strong denial that God is the author of evil is not as convincing as once it was. Obviously, the sweeping philosophical conundrum of the origin and existence of evil (of which physical illness is a painfully personal example) has exercised serious reflection from the beginning with no satisfactory end in sight. Therefore, if a completely satisfactory resolution is unlikely, at least Calvin’s conclusion can be gently modified by his own suggestion.

Among the alternative possibilities for resolution, Calvin did not for a moment consider that God might be limited in nature (as in process theology) or self-limited by choice (as in Emil Brunner)83 or that God’s interest in “soul-making” requires the existence of evil.84 The regnancy of God is unquestioned. Calvin believed all things are governed by God including human free will. We are to understand “that on both sides the will is in God’s power, either to bend the hearts of men to humanity, or to harden those which were naturally tender.”85 In a bold metaphor Calvin even claims that God fights against us with his left hand and for us with his right hand.86 In both events we are in God’s hands.

Two modern, major, and massive theological acquisitions have provoked a climate change of opinion that Calvin could not have anticipated and which require integration into the family heritage. First, a particularly contentious debate over Calvin’s doctrine of Scripture continues to roil his descendants. There is, of course, no gainsaying that Calvin did not feel the impact of the Critical Historical Method, and, while his response to this development cannot be predicted, its adoption by most mainstream biblical scholars today means that the distinction between human and divine in Scripture is less adamantine than Calvin thought. Thus, a biblical citation no longer closes a discussion but opens it to furtherdevelopment.87

The second wider and deeper change concerns the role of reason. The dream of reason in Western intellectual culture stretched from Plato to Spinoza, but the famous wake-up call which sounded from David Hume alarming Immanuel Kant and rousing him from his dogmatic slumbers, leads to the claim that “The Copernican revolution brought about by Kant was the most important single turning point in the history of philosophy.”88 If so, it is now impossible for Western theologians to ignore Kant’s strictures on pure reason to make room for deep faith. Additionally, the necessity and universality of reason has been challenged by anthropological studies of differing cultures and gender studies within the same culture. Moreover, the developing scientific study of the human and animal brain modifies the confidence of Hamlet’s appeal to “godlike reason” (Hamlet IV.4.38).

Calvin’s epistemological reliance on Scripture and reason is an immense and complicated subject on its own.89 He believed the Bible was the divine Word of God but he also noted its human elements. Likewise, Calvin both praised and blamed reason. “Reason is proper to our nature; it distinguishes us from brute beasts.”90 At the same time, because of sin human reason is not able to understand God nor God’s relation to humanity. 91 Therefore, “Christian philosophy bids reason give way to, submit, and subject itself to, the Holy Spirit.”92 Still at the end of the day, although Calvin rejects “speculation,”93 he thinks there must be a reason for the existence of illnesses, even if we do not know exactly what it is. Among his explanations, Calvin offers the punishment of human sin, God’s hidden will, the malignancy of Satan and the demons, and the evil will of other human beings. According to Calvin, the proper human response to this situation is faith, humility, patience, and so on. Nevertheless, the variety of these explanations does not challenge Calvin’s basic confidence that the divine intellect has its reasons even though they are hidden from us.

An alternative category of “mysteries beyond reason” is sometimes employed by Calvin and should be noted. That is, Calvin affirms many divine things that humans do not, and cannot, know. For example, he admits the existence of sin as “adventitious”94 meaning it has no rational explanation. Calvin did not, but he might have, applied this category to disease suggesting that while medicine seeks to describe “what” and “how,” theology cannot explain its “why.” This situation has some affinity with Kant’s distinction between the phenomenal and noumenal realm leading to the concept of “antinomy”—a category impervious to pure, but not to practical, reason. If then we humans can recognize and treat the penultimate and medical causes of disease, we might admit that we do not understand the “reason” for illness and are not obligated to insist ultimately and theologically that there is one. One might leave the painful puzzle to reason and the trustful victory to faith.

Many contemporary students of Calvin’s theology, both clerical and medical, cannot with best mind and good conscience adopt the obvious conclusion that Calvin draws concerning the existence and meaning of disease. Still, seeking a life of faith, hope, and love, one can appreciate Calvin’s passionate conviction that in neither prosperity nor adversity are we separated from the love of God. Therefore, leaving the study of “material,” “efficient,” and “formal” causes to the scientific community, theologians might come full stop before the “final” causes of illness. Affirming in faith with Calvin God’s good creation and encompassing providence, the impenetrable mystery of assigning a “final cause” for disease might be approached with the modesty and humility which Calvin sometimes evinces.

Following this interlude of thundering silence, theology could resume with the glorious theme of hope in life everlasting and abundant where, delivered from pain and death, all tears are dried, all sorrows past, the lame walk, the deaf hear, the blind see, lepers are cleansed—the dead being raised up made alive in Christ.[1]

Following Hogge’s and Partee’s treatment of Calvin, we can see that Calvin himself, because of his historical location, would defy the modern attempt to peer into the ‘abyss’ of God’s secret council when it comes to trying to understand the ‘cause’ of evil, sickness, and disease. But precisely because of Calvin’s location, theologically, he will consistently defer to God’s sovereign hand of providence in the affairs of this world order, and all of us ensconced within it. So while he will not attempt to speculate or press in the type of rationalist ways that moderns might want to; at the same time he rests and trusts in the reality that God is providentially in control of sickness and disease. He doesn’t have the type of scientific acumen that moderns have ostensibly developed, but he rests in the always abiding reality of God’s almighty ability to succor the needs of all of us frail and indolent humans as we inhabit a world of contingencies and ailments not of our own making, per se.

As modern and now “post-modern” people we want more scientifically derived answers than Calvin can offer us. When we get sick, when we suffer immeasurable diseases and anxieties in our apparently cold and chaotic world, we look to the lab-coats to offer us a cure-for-what-ails-us. But for anyone, particularly those of us, who like Calvin, abide in a deep union with God in Jesus Christ, we will most consistently end up right where pre-modern Calvin always ended up; we will repose in God’s faithful care to never leave us or forsake us; we will rest in the reality that God is both sovereign, and that he providentially walks with us through the valley of the shadow of death, even more than we realize.

When I was diagnosed with desmoplastic small round cell tumor sarcoma (DSRCT), an incurable and terminal cancer for which there is no known treatment, I ended up right where Calvin ended up; I had to simply rest and trust in God’s providential and loving care. I did due diligence, in regard to pursuing all known treatment avenues, both traditionally and alternatively, but at the end of the day, and in every instance, I had to rest in the reality that God was in control. Like Calvin, as Hogge and Partee highlight, I had to find assurance and hope in the fact that the God who I couldn’t control was in control, indeed, of my every waning anxiety and fear; that he was in control of the chaos (the cancer) inside of my body that wanted to consume me like a voracious monster. I did find rest and hope in God’s providential care; not in the abstract, but as God broke into my life moment by moment, every moment of everyday during that season.

While sickness, disease, suffering, evil, and the like might not have an easy answer—as far as causation—what we can rest in, like Calvin did, is the fact that we know the One who is in control; who is in control of what might even look like absolute chaos and destruction upon us. We can rest in the fact that, in Christ, we are in union with an indestructible life that death couldn’t even hold down. This is my comfort in life, even now. I rest in the fact that God in Christ gives me every breath that I breathe, literally; the same breath that the risen Son of God rose with on that Easter morning.

 

[1] W. Allen Hogge, M.D. and Charles Partee, “Calvin’s Awful Health and God’s Awesome Providence,” in Myk Habets and Bobby Grow, eds., Evangelical Calvinism: Volume 2: Dogmatics&Devotion (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications an Imprint of Wipf&Stock Publishers, 2017), 285-88.

Gannon Murphy On: To truly know God is to love him. Religion and Piety As a Frame for Knowing God

By now you know that our second Evangelical Calvinism book was just released, the full title being: Evangelical Calvinism: Volume 2: Dogmatics&Devotion. But as you also know Myk and I had a volume 1 Evangelical Calvinism book published under the title: Evangelical Calvinism: Essays Resourcing the Continuing Reformation of the Church (which this subtitle is also attached to our second volume as well). This post will be referencing one of the chapters found in EC1; a chapter written by Gannon Murphy on knowledge of God in John Calvin’s thought.

What I want to focus on, in regard to Gannon’s chapter is his brief but profound development of how the Latin terms religio and pietas function in Calvin’s theological offering when it comes to knowledge of God. As Murphy points out Calvin’s conception of knowledge of God was never a disembodied one; in fact it was more existential. It was never really a philosophical or abstract engagement with some sort of abstract brute conception of a substance that we could correlate through abstract reasoning to the God disclosed in Holy Scripture and Jesus Christ. No, as Murphy argues, for Calvin, knowledge of God was something more akin to knowledge in God; more particularly in Christ. Gannon up-points how the concepts of religio and pietas functioned in this type of dialogical/existential mode for the Christian knower coram Deo (‘before God’). Gannon writes (at length):

Religio and Pietas

The very beginning of the Institutes commences in a statement concerning that which constitutes true wisdom, to wit, that wisdom “consists almost entirely of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves.” Some theologians have argued that this first statement is actually the entire point of the Institutes, a contestable, but not entirely meritless, claim.

It is perhaps customary in our technological age to think of knowledge as a purely apprehensive or propositional enterprise—we have knowledge of this object, or that thing, or such-and-such a set of data. The key to preserving Calvin’s doctrine of knowledge (cognitione), however, is to see it as something much fuller and more “holistic.” In sum, to truly know God is to love him. Theological knowledge is not merely propositional in nature or a matter of mere intellectual assent (assensus). Rather, it must also be experiential, stemming from love that also manifests itself in adoration, trust, fear, and obedience to God. Edward Dowey, for example, refers to Calvin’s concept of knowledge, as “existential knowledge.” The idea of coming to God merely in mind is an utterly foreign concept throughout the Calvinian corpus. Further, Calvin (like Luther) alludes to the nonsensical nature of conceiving of God as a mere object of knowledge.

Calvin uses the terms religio and pietas which, unfortunately, do not translate well into our English words, religion and piety, both of which tend to connote merely a system of ecclesiology or perfunctory, external religious observance. Both words in the Latin, however, denote something much deeper. Re-ligio derives from re, “again” and ligere, “to literally means “careful,” the opposite of negligens. Religio, then, means something more along the lines of “careful attention to” and to be “rebound.” Pietas, while often suggesting merely “dutifulness,” is better understood as “dutiful kindness,” stemming from the Latin root pius (literally, “kind”). Thus, pietas is friendly obedience toward the things of God. It is the perfect opposite of animosity toward godly things—to find oneself welcoming of, and delighting in, his or her Creator.

Calvin, characteristically never wanting to be misunderstood but always desiring clarity for his readers, defines religio as, “confidence in God coupled with serious fear—fear, which both includes in it willing reverence, and brings along with it such legitimate worship as is prescribed by the law.” On the other hand, pietas is “that union of reverence and love to God which the knowledge of his benefits inspires.” Expounded here is something rather far removed from trajectories that find natural theology as their starting point—the idea of an irrefragable knowledge of God garnered apart from reverence and revelation, that is, a special and specific Word from God. Rather, Calvin speaks of the first step of pietas being, “to acknowledge that God is a Father, to defend, govern, and cherish us, until he brings us to the eternal inheritance of his kingdom.”

That true knowledge of God cannot be torn asunder from pietas and religio means, then, that overly-philosophical speculation about the essence or substance of God is necessarily ruled out. Calvin derides such pursuits as “Epicurean,” as “frigid speculations,” and admonishes us rather to seek out “what things are agreeable to his nature.”[1]

Personally this resonates with me deeply; which is why Murphy’s chapter is so apropos in a book with the title Evangelical Calvinism. It is this embodied way of knowing God, by loving God that represents the proper kind of ‘pure religion’ and piety that Jesus himself claims sums up all of the Law and Prophets:

36 “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” 37 And He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the great and foremost commandment. 39 The second is like it, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets.”[2]

What this Calvinian mode towards knowledge of God kicks against, ironically, is any approach that would attempt to know God through discursive reasoning, or philosophical abstraction. What Calvin’s approach admonishes us to is to approach God through God in Christ en concreto (specific); through the realization that genuine knowledge of God is never an abstract academic endeavor, it always entails the particular and scandalous approach to God that only comes through the Lamb slain before the foundations of the world. In other words, genuine religion and piety,  relative to the Christian, involves a committed and lively relationship with God; but one that is not initiated by humans in abstraction, instead one that is unilaterally provided for by the initiation and election of God in Christ. Some might consider this relational way for conceiving of knowledge of God as foolish and weak; but so goes the way of the Gospel.

What this all avoids is presenting a knowledge of God that is rooted, again, in philosophical speculation and even what counts today, most, as what it means to do good Christian evangelical theology. What we want to avoid, which Dag Hammarskjöld so eloquently describes is a presentation of a knowledge of the faith that in the end is perceptibly empty by the discerning and reflective human Christian or even non-Christian would-be knower. Note Hammarskjöld: “‘How many have been driven into outer darkness by empty talk about faith as something to be rationally comprehended, something “true”’.[3] If we follow Calvin’s lead, according to Gannon, we won’t be ‘driven into outer darkness’ when coming to know God in Christ; instead because of union and participation in and from life in Christ we will be “irresistibly” drawn deeper and deeper into the winsome and ineffable inner life of God, in Christ, wherein an effervescent and luminous knowledge of God’s life, by experience (properly understood), will be ever increasing and ever inviting.

Leaving on a Personal Note

I honestly do not think this is the approach people in the 21st century evangelical church, particularly in North America and the West, are being provided with. Instead, contra Calvin, what folks are being fed is a pablum of religio and pietas that come in that name only. In other words, people are being encouraged, if they want to press deep into God, to engage with God from a philosophical and ‘natural’ approach to him. What makes this hard for folks to discern is that so much of what they are being fed has been conflated and couched in a Christian (i.e. Reformed) heritage that has this type of heart-warmed-over affectionate “piety” associated with it; but when that person digs deeper into the intellectual framework that is funding this “piety” what in fact they will find is a highly philosophical apparatus for knowing God that has more to do with the classical Philosophers of ancient Greece than it does with God’s Self-revelation in Jesus Christ.

It seriously agitates me that this is what counts as engaging with God for the evangelical Christian today. I blame institutions such as The Gospel Coalition, Together 4 the Gospel, and other associations of evangelicals for much of this; i.e. at least as this is making its way into the broader community of evangelical Christians in North America. We need to return to the sources, ad fontes, truly; but may that be understood to be genuinely rooted in God’s Self-revelation in Jesus Christ alone. May that be understood to be grounded in an actual framework that genuinely is relational and personal, and works from the “foundation” that the Triune God is indeed ‘the ground and grammar’ of all things; particularly and mostly of knowledge of Godself.

[1] Gannon Murphy, Pietas, Religio, and the God Who Is, in Myk Habets and Bobby Grow eds., Evangelical Calvinism: Essays Resourcing the Continuing Reformation of the Church (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications an Imprint of Wipf&Stock Publishers, 2012), 159-60.

[2] NASB.

[3] See Jason Goroncy’s post, On Empty Talk About Faith, accessed 05-16-2017.